Ceramics Fired by Imagination


In a bit of serendipitous timing, the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Long Beach Museum of Art are both presenting modest historical exhibitions of ceramics that demonstrate, in their own unique ways, the range of nutty eccentricity to which the decorative arts so often aspire. One show records one of the great failed projects in the history of aristocratic European decorative arts. The other surveys a peculiar early foray into a commercially successful precinct of addled mass taste.

The Getty is presenting "A Royal Menagerie: Porcelain Animals From Dresden." At Long Beach, "Imps on a Bridge: Wedgwood Fairyland and Other Lustres" is on view.

Around 1725, Augustus the Strong--elector of Saxony, king of Poland and obsessed collector of Chinese and Japanese porcelain--got the idea to greatly enlarge a stately house in Dresden in order to make it into a veritable porcelain palace. The main rooms would house the vast royal collections of Asian ceramics. Later it was decided that another section would be reserved for objects made in the burgeoning factory at Meissen, where a European formula for porcelain had been discovered about 20 years before.

As part of the ambitious plan, Augustus commissioned the Meissen factory to produce a porcelain menagerie--nearly life-size monkeys, lions, vultures, tigers, eagles, billy goats, foxes and more. Using kaolin, quartz and feldspar (the basic ingredients of the porcelain recipe), the animals assembled in the actual royal zoo effectively would be reproduced "in their natural sizes and colors," according to the written instructions of the order placed at the factory.

Almost 600 animals of some 60 different kinds were commissioned for the project, although far fewer were made. Fourteen of the fragile porcelain creatures, which almost never leave the State Art Collection in Dresden, have been brought together in the decorative arts galleries at the Getty.

And they're an absolute mess.

The project was, quite simply, a fiasco--heroic in conception, disastrous in execution. The scheme simply outstripped the technical capacities of the young Meissen factory. As the slim but informative catalog to the show explains in considerable detail, problems arose in just about every step of the complicated process. The large scale posed difficulties in making molds, assembling them into figures, air-drying the paste sculpture, firing it, glazing the ungainly object, firing it again, enameling the animal's colors and more.


Sometimes it seems that whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. The porcelain animals exhibit wonderfully observed details--the comical splay of a monkey's fingers, for example, or the way a goat gently licks her suckling kid. Artists Johann Gottlieb Kirchner and Johann Joachim Kaendler designed most of the figures by drawing from live models in the royal zoo, then cleverly melding their designs with structural requirements of porcelain manufacture.

Yet there's also a lumpish, dough-like quality to many of these sculptures, which often feel inert and sluggish. The scheme for a menagerie was abandoned as impossible in 1735 (Augustus had died by then), and the exhibition mostly leaves you dreaming about what might have been.

Still, there's something oddly heartening about this unusual display. Amid all the historical opulence of the Getty's extraordinary decorative arts collection in adjacent rooms (not to mention the latter-day opulence of the Getty itself), the flubbed royal menagerie from Dresden embodies an idea worth remembering: Absolute power is never quite so absolute as it supposes.

Speaking of morality plays, "Imps on a Bridge" in Long Beach focuses on eccentric tales of good and evil as recorded on Wedgwood earthenware in the 1910s and 1920s by English china-painter Daisy Makeig-Jones (1881--1945). The ambitions evident in these ornate, highly colored and whimsically patterned plates, bowls, vases and jars are considerably less grand than those pursued by Augustus the Strong. But they are nonetheless peculiar.

Take the 1924 plate from which the show gets its title. The circular design, just under 11 inches in diameter, is conceived as a glimpse through a magic peephole into another realm.

The plate's golden border is an intricate, densely drawn interlace of floral bouquets, from which imps and fairies emerge. It's as if you've pushed the vegetation aside to see what's beyond. There, the central scene is a Technicolor extravaganza.

It shows a green and gold footbridge over a cobalt-blue lagoon in which a black and gold sea serpent swims. Pinkish-purple imps, looking very much like kewpies, parade across the bridge, while an enormous, friendly, bright green bat flies by. The place is a veritable Munchkin Land.

The colors in the plate are intense and jewel-like. Five different versions of the design are included in the show, and the color combinations differ significantly from plate to plate. Lots of elaborate ceramic traditions are touched on, including Islamic, Celtic, Far Eastern and continental European Art Nouveau impulses. But the differences don't alter the general sense of wondrous, escapist whimsy.

Makeig-Jones concocted elaborate morality plays in her lush fairyland designs. The duality of good and evil, for example, can be seen in a pot showing malicious imps stealing eggs from the nest of the magical Bird of Paradise.


Yet it's doubtful that many people were buying these fanciful Wedgwood creations principally to gain lessons in moral rectitude. Whatever the artist's intentions, what the pots deliver is tabletop splendor--lush, exotic, opulent splendor, tailored to the tastes and pocketbooks of an emerging British upper-middle class.

Wedgwood fairyland pottery elaborated on a High Romantic tradition of 19th century British painting, derived from Germanic sources and epitomized by artist Richard Dadd (1817-1886). Like Joshua Reynolds and Henry Fuseli, who illustrated magical scenes from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "The Tempest," Dadd is best known for elaborate fairy pictures filled with meticulous detail. (Many were painted after he went mad in 1843, when he murdered his father and was confined to a hospital for the criminally insane.) The mid-century vogue for fairy painting lived on in the celebrated book illustrations of Richard Doyle (1824-1883) and Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). Wedgwood fairyland, like a lot of mass-market decorative arts, taps into free-floating nostalgia for an established cultural formula.

The Long Beach show, organized by the museum's director, Hal Nelson, also provides some useful context for Makeig-Jones' creations. In addition to the 49 works designed by her, which form the centerpiece of this compact exhibition, it includes a thumbnail history of 100 years of Wedgwood lustreware, beginning about 1810. The mottled, iridescent surfaces of lustreware recall ancient glass and pottery, chemically altered through centuries of being buried in the ground, while the shell shapes and organic patterns have familiar Orientalist sources.

It concludes with 10 works by seven of Makeig-Jones' fellow designers. The most impressive is a large, luminous, gold and silvery green dish by Louise Powell (1882-1956). The glamorous design is as subtle as a peacock spreading his tail feathers.

* J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through early 2002. Closed Monday; weekday parking reservations required.

Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., (562) 439-2119, through Sept. 9. Closed Monday.

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